From the Middle of the Boat – It's Not Just a "Free" Dive??

A diver descends into the deep blue, a solitary attempt to reach what no other human has…or is it? The necessary training and preparation required by an athlete for a world record freedive is well known, but it is far from a solitary act. Four freediving world records would be attempted in Florida during a hot and stormy weekend in June. From the moment I land in Miami, I experience nothing but an extremely welcome and accommodating group of people in support of the athletes and the event. I have recently been honoured with the positions of judge for The Canadian Association of Freediving and Apnea (CAFA) and for Association Internationale pour le D??veloppement de l’Apn??e (AIDA). Being a judge allows for a different perspective from that of the athlete attempting the world record. I am only one of the many people required to observe and record those willing and able to descend into the deep blue. Technical and recreational safety divers, judges and videographers prepare to support the incredible skills required in the sport of freediving. Behind the focus and motivation of the athletes awaits such a team of people. This team organizes the event away from the athlete, often on a different boat, behind closed doors, or silently waiting at a breaths distance. I have been fortunate to see some of the most gifted free divers seemingly fly past me, to the depths and back towards the sun, each time my own heart racing with anticipation and excitement for them.

Preparation for the event ranges from organizing the boat logistics, videographers, technical, and recreational safety divers, to arranging for a medical team and judges. I can’t imagine someone more skilled at this behind-the-scene magic than Kirk Krack. Not only a talented and experienced freediver, but also a technical diver, he is able to organize and understand the diverse needs of the people involved. His strong conviction for safety and the proper protocol associated with freediving and record attempts are evident in each event he sets up, "Freediving has inherent risks involved, especially when attempting world records, because by nature we’ll tend to push ourselves harder than in training. An athlete has enough to think about to gain their best performance, and worrying about their own safety shouldn’t play a factor in their mind. I help provide the best and safest conditions for an athlete to perform which allows them to pull out all stops and see what they really have in them and if it’s a world record, all the better". The dangers of the sport are always explicitly addressed and the risk management aspect is the focus of the preparation.

The records attempted include Martin Stepanek of the Czech Republic, Static Apnea 7:37+; Mandy Cruikshank, Canada, Free Immersion 71m +; Eric Fattah, Canada, Constant Ballast 82m +; Karoline Dal Toe, Brazil, Static Apnea 6:04 +. Martin and Karoline were successful in their record attempts and now hold the world records in this category. They each have a different style of preparing for static apnea – and each an amazing record to witness. Karoline reset her record at 6 minutes and 13 seconds and Martin broke the longest standing freedive record with the incredible breathhold of 8 minutes and 6 seconds. For this type of apnea event, the athletes do not have to be concerned with ocean conditions or as large a safety team, but there is a huge psychological aspect to be considered. I can’t imagine it is too simple or exciting to go to the pool and train day after day and maintain the concentration required to achieve these times. It is easy to observe a strong motivational focus in each of these athletes.

A different type of environmental conditions was demonstrated during the training of Eric and Mandy. The glamorous preparation for the week began with daily 5:30 am calls to get ready for the boat. Arriving from the west coast, this is a definite struggle for me. When I do finally wake up, Eric has already gone for an early morning run. There are several days of training in Miami and both Eric and Mandy have to reach their required depths before they can make the record attempt. The ocean was unseasonably rough for the duration of the training days which made it even more difficult for both athletes who were used to shore diving. In the end both records were cancelled, but Eric’s attempt would later be successful back in the comfortably cold Canadian water. He writes of his training back in Vancouver, "I couldn’t believe how fun this was. I felt so good, my blood pressure was good, I slept in, the water was flat as a lake, the line was going straight down, no current of any kind, no exhaust fumes, no sea sickness!" Although the records weren’t completed, I felt the entire training process was productive because they continued to work at the dives regardless of the conditions and difficulties. I have no doubt we will be hearing from Mandy again soon.

World record events require that there is a safety diver at every 20 meters to depth. A technical diver is required to use Trimix below 55 meters, gas mixtures of oxygen, nitrogen, and helium. At a depth of 90 meters a divers bottom time would typically be 8 minutes with a decompression obligation requiring them to be in the water for over and hour. The necessary equipment typically includes four tanks of the various gas mixtures and specialized gear for the depths reached. For me, one of the best reasons for being involved as a judge is the interaction between the freedivers and the technical divers. I am able to witness the preparation on both sides, take part in conversations in each discipline, and overhear the remarks made regarding diving technique and equipment. As the freedivers watch the technical divers prepare, and as the tech divers watch the freedivers, the questions and statements from each group are the same…WHY? would you want to do THAT, and I would NEVER want to do THAT! I just remain in the centre of the boat with a big grin, feeling like I’m somewhere in heaven.